Just like Leon Schuster’s work, there’s nothing funny about students lampooning domestic workers, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - When I first saw the pictures of the two white students who had blackened their faces and dressed up as domestic workers, I thought to myself, “Leon Schuster is that you?”. But, of course, it wasn’t him. Not unlike Schuster’s work, however, these pictures weren’t funny at all. But some of the wide-ranging responses to the incident need critical scrutiny.
I think the students acted thoughtlessly. And they should be judged for that.
Dressing up as domestic workers and blackening your faces shows callous disregard for the country we share, and live in.
We have a country with deep inequality, and a history of anti-black racism entrenched in all sectors of society.
That history is still very fresh, very recent, and the consequences of that racist history is still lived and felt by millions of black South Africans. Domestic workers are particularly caught up in that inequality-exploitation nexus.
Many of our moms, aunts, cousins and sisters travel across cities into the suburbs of middle class and wealthy South Africans, cleaning up after them, cleaning their houses, and raising their children even, the very ones who end up mocking them in the name of “innocent fun”.
These students should have thought twice and self-censored their poor prank idea. If, of course, they have a sense of the history and social realities of domestic workers. And I suspect that that is the heart of why this blackface incident could occur – the domestic worker’s person and identity do not figure in the headspaces of these students. You can only take the domestic worker seriously if you recognise her existence, humaneness, her agency. Clearly these two students do not.
But what fascinates me, however, are some really bizarre defences that have sprung up on behalf of the students.
The first, and most popular one, is that they are “just students” and “students do stupid things”. This is not compelling. Students are young adults at tertiary institutions that, by definition, bring them into a critical space. If these students are worthy of being at university, then they can be held to account for their behaviour. This idea that students are machines with no reflective capacity is rubbish. We can, and do, expect more of students. That is why universities have codes of conduct. Students are not children. And should not be excused as if they are.
The second defence focuses on intentions. I don’t know what their intentions were, but let’s assume they had zero intention to mock, or to belittle, domestic workers. Let’s assume the best, that their intention was simply to have fun. Does this change how we should assess the result?
Not entirely, I am afraid. Behaviour that has racist or other prejudicial subtexts is unacceptable. I can hurt someone’s dignity even if that was not, in some narrow sense, my direct intention. My behaviour would still be wrong and should still be subject to social disapproval.
This matters for two reasons: the judgment against me would help reaffirm the dignity of the offended person and, secondly, I should be judged for not thinking and acting more thoughtfully. And the same applies here. The students ought to have thought carefully about their plan. They didn’t, and that is worth sanctioning. Next time, no doubt, they will think twice.
But the defence that has been the hastiest of them all is the claim by some that there is no difference between these students dressing up and the work of Schuster. The implication is that we all accept Schuster can poke fun at poor black people, and so why can’t these students also do the same as the entertainer?
This argument rests on the mistaken view that Schuster’s work isn’t problematic.
However, as actor Tsepo wa Mamatu brilliantly argued in his Masters thesis several years ago already, a lot of Schuster’s work can be characterised as racist. The fact that some black people love Schuster’s work doesn’t matter.
As a gay man I could laugh with a homophobe who cracks a homophobic joke. I’m not sure that fact legitimises the homophobia. Similarly, whether the painted black-face prank is acceptable or not isn’t simply a matter of asking how many black people feel offended.
Lampooning black life is unacceptable, despite the fact that many black viewers of Schuster’s work or black students at these campuses may not feel offended.
As Mamatu argues, levels of artistic literacy are not always very highly developed in our cinemagoers and so we turn off our critical faculties, helping Schuster get rich, and all the while laughing at ourselves being mocked on the screen in front of us.
Similarly, those who feel this was just a fun prank that should not be “over-analysed” are being lazy. It takes effort to deal with issues like this, and some of us just do not want to put in that effort so resort to lazy responses like: “Ag man, there are bigger issues in our country.”
This is a big issue, and if you think long enough about the connection between the racism in this act and the material inequalities of the country that persist, it will jump out at you.